On day 7 of the Twelve Days of Christiemas I’m pleased to welcome author Barbara Nadel to the blog. Barbara is the author of the Inspector Ikmen series. Her latest novel, Incorruptible, the 20th book in the series was published by Headline on 28 June 2018.
Barbara tells us about Agatha Christie’s Istanbul.
Istanbul is not the sort of place where one is hard-pressed for things to see. Just the Imperial Mosques and Palaces can keep a visitor amused for at least a month – and that’s without even mentioning the Grand Bazaar, museums, Bosphorus villages, etc., etc. However, some people do like to visit the city in the footsteps of an historical figure like the Emperor Constantine, Suleyman the Magnificent or the 19th century French adventurer, Pierre Loti. But for those of us of a more, shall we say, criminal bent, there is one person’s connection to Istanbul that is absolutely hypnotic: Agatha Christie.
Everyone knows about the main events in Agatha’s life: how she disappeared in 1926 in the wake of her husband’s infidelity and then turned up in Harrogate ten days later with no explanation. In 1930 she married the archeologist Max Mallowan, a man thirteen years her junior, and spent much of her later life accompanying him on digs in Iraq. But how this radical change in her circumstances came about is, in part, connected to Agatha’s first experience of what was then called ‘the Orient’, the city of Istanbul.
In 1928 Agatha, now divorced and alone, began a journey to a country she had always found fascinating, Iraq. She boarded the Simplon Orient Express in London and disembarked at its terminus, Istanbul. Before going on to Iraq she spent some time in the city and it was at this time that she developed a passion for it.
The railway terminus of the Orient Express in Istanbul is a place called Sirkeci Station. A vast Moorish style building, it was built by the German engineer August Jasmund in 1890 to serve both the Orient Express and local suburban lines. The station included a restaurant, now called the ‘Orient Express’ which, when Agatha would have known it, was a place that was popular with writers and intellectuals. These days it still serves excellent food and sometime hosts performances by Mevlevi or ‘Whirling’ Dervishes. In the 1920s however it was a place where rich Europeans disembarked to be taken to the new and opulent hotels that had sprung up to accommodate them across the Golden Horn in Pera (now called Beyoglu).
On that first visit, Agatha stayed in a hotel called the Tokatlian. Situated on what was then the Grand Rue de Pera, now Istiklal Caddesi, it no longer exists as a hotel. Now the large building next to the alleyway of small restaurants and bars known as Cicek Pasaj is home to numerous shops and offices. But in the 20s it was the place to be and in fact Agatha wrote part of ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ as well as ‘Parker Pyne Investigates’ when she was a guest at the Tokatlian.
A hotel more readily connected to Agatha is the Pera Palas. She stayed at the Pera many times over the years as she travelled backwards and forwards to Iraq. Also situated in Beyoglu, on Mesrutiyet Caddesi, the Pera Palas opened in 1895. It was the first building in Turkey to be powered by electricity and featured an ornate wooden elevator which is still working today. Agatha liked to stay in Room 411 which is preserved in her honour complete with her typewriter and original furnishings. She wrote part of ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ here and also became, again, the centre of a mystery that endures to this day.
In 1979, Hollywood studio, Warner Brothers, made a film called ‘Agatha’ about her ten day disappearance in 1926. As part of their ‘research’ into the subject, the film makers contacted a famous Hollywood medium, Tamara Rand, who they wanted to ‘make contact’ with Agatha in Room 411. Rand duly did this and discovered, apparently from Agatha, that the answer to her disappearance in ’26 was hidden somewhere in the hotel room. The world’s press descended and were in situ when Rand gave instructions for the floorboards to be lifted. A rusty, 8cm key was discovered and taken into the care of the hotel manager who then demanded $2 million for it. Warner Brothers agreed to pay and then had Rand hold another seance during which ‘Agatha’ alluded to a secret diary she couldn’t locate unless Rand had the key in her hand. A meeting between Warner Brothers and the hotel management was then scheduled but then had to be cancelled due to an industrial dispute. The key therefore remains in the hotel and the ‘diary’ is still to be located. Maybe it’s all nonsense, but it’s a good tale and was on my mind when I stayed in Room 411 back in 2012. It’s also supposed to be haunted, but I can tell you I slept very well in there, probably because I’m not accustomed to luxury and wanted to make the most of it!
These days the Pera Palas makes much of its illustrious guest list and, as well as being able to see Room 411 one can also visit the room where the first president of the Republic, Ataturk stayed as well as rooms once used by Greta Garbo, King Edward VIII and Mata Hari. It’s also a great place for afternoon tea.
Much of what one sees in Istanbul today would have been familiar to Agatha Christie. Although the city is now peppered with tower blocks, threaded with new, wide roads and the Bosphorus strait between Europe and Asia now boasts three suspension bridges, the old city is still alive and kicking. You can still ride a slow ferry down the Bosphorus and gawp at the mansions and palaces that line one shore in Asia, the other shore in Europe. The Grand Bazaar is still arranged in streets of jewellers, leather workers and copper-smiths and men and women still smoke nargile water pipes at little cafes in the district of Tophane. Close your eyes and you could be back in the 1920s.
Where you most certainly mustn’t close your eyes is if you visit the Crimean Memorial Church in Beyoglu. Hidden away at the end of a very trendy street called Serdar-i Ekrem Sokak, this is a very typical looking Anglican church one might easily overlook in London. Here it’s appearance is startling, surrounded as it is by a very English graveyard. Built at the end of the Crimean War the land was given to the British by a grateful Sultan Abdulmecid II after their defeat of invading Russian forces. It’s very Victorian.
Now I don’t know whether Agatha ever attended the Crimean Memorial Church or not, but I am sure she knew people in the British community who did. Also, this church is situated not far from the British Consulate which Agatha most certainly visited and from which many congregants would have come. And talking of the consulate which, like the Pera Palas is on Mesrutiyet Caddesi brings me to my last Agatha destination. In common with the Pera Palas, the Londra Oteli is also on Mesrutiyet. A somewhat faded 19th century building, it is where Agatha would sometimes go for a drink. Rather faded and a bit camp until it’s recent refit, I feel it is a little anodyne these days but with a small amount of imagination one can still squint to see Agatha, Ernest Hemingway and Josephine Baker haunting the few remaining dark corners of the bar. Such was once the attraction of this place.
And so if you do go to Istanbul, do take some time to follow in Agatha’s footsteps and take the trail from Sirkeci Station up into the glories of Beyoglu and, maybe, along the fabulous Bosphorus, perhaps to Asia and beyond…
About the book
In the backstreets of Istanbul, a young woman’s body is found. Dumped in a dustbin and covered in cut flowers, she is the victim of a frenzied and vicious stabbing.
Inspector Ikmen discovers that the woman was well known in Istanbul. Newspapers had been calling her the blessed woman; cured of cancer in a Christian miracle and a proclaimed messenger of the Virgin Mary. These controversial claims had made her fierce enemies in the predominantly Islamic community and she had unwittingly stirred up divisions amongst the Christians of the city. But as Ikmen digs further into the case he uncovers powerful hatred and dark secrets lurking within her family. And to find the truth he must delve into a toxic world of fear, concealment and lies. The question is: was this a killing in the name of faith or does the answer lie somewhere else?
About the author
Trained as an actress, Barbara Nadel used to work in mental health services. Born in the East End of London, she now writes full time and has been a visitor to Turkey for over twenty years. She received the Crime Writers’ Association Silver Dagger for her novel DEADLY WEB, and the Swedish Flintax Prize for historical crime fiction for her first Francis Hancock novel, LAST RIGHTS.
To find out more, follow Barbara on Twitter @BarbaraNadel or visit her website http://www.barbara-nadel.com